Tag Archives: dear lord why?

Meditations on Snow

10 Feb

ImageOne of my neighbors has this lovely Buddha at the head of their driveway. I feel like the Buddha is dealing with the weather much better than I am. (Why yes, it snowed even more last night, why do you ask?)


Parley-vous francais?

28 Sep

Or: How to get on when you have no idea what they’re saying

I don’t speak French. At all. In the past, I have tried to speak French in front of actual French people, to general amusement and outright laughter.

So of course I chose to move to Paris.

Yes, I know, it makes perfect sense.

My host family seems to be surprised at how well I function in a French-speaking household. I shrug and tell them it isn’t so bad. After all, I can read a French paper and get the gist of it.* The TV has subtitles on all the cartoons. And I might not be able to follow a conversation, but I can pass the butter or salt when someone asks.

At this point in my life, I’ve spent years in places where I don’t know what the hells anyone is saying. I’ve become very, very good at inferring what is going on through body language, tone of voice, and general common sense. If you concentrate it isn’t too bad. Call it my one weird skill. (Well, that, and my unerring ability to be approached and asked for directions, no matter where on Earth.)

Basically, “fake it until you make it”. I’ve found that if you brazen through, you can usually get away with a lot of poor social skills. Sure, I have no idea what the cashier said, but I certainly can read the total on the register and hand her the right amount of money. A polite smile gets me through most interactions without having to speak, other than my basic “hello” and “thank you”.

And, above all, if you can read, you can do anything. Seriously. Maps? Menus? Bus schedules? Signage? My Dad used to tease us all the time whenever we came up to him with questions that could be easily answered by reading the labelling or the internet.**

So really, my advice to the average traveller is to do basic research, learn a few key phrases, and above all, get used to not knowing what’s going on. It’s like being back in my college stats class, except with better bread.

*English and French share a lot of cognates. Plus, I have seven years of Spanish under my belt. They’re similar enough that I can figure out what’s going on. Usually. But it’s still better than my Chinese reading ability, of which I am still unable to skim a paragraph after six years. As always, see Moser for more on this.

** “That sounds like a job for The Internet!”

Moving On Down

17 Feb



So. I wanted to talk about the food in Sydney on this post, but due to unforeseen circumstances, today I am moving from my very comfortable room here at the International Student Dorms to the East Dorms. Details are thin on the ground and we exchange students are prone to hyperbole, but from all accounts we are definitely being downgraded.

The word “squat toilet” is being thrown around. As is “public shower”.

I am Not A Happy Cabbage.

Right now I’m packing up all my stuff and trying not to freak out. I’m looking at rooms to rent in the Chengdu area and I have a lead on an apartment-share not too far from campus. In the meantime, a farewell to room 111, which has served me faithfully these past six months.

UPDATE: I have moved into the new dorm room. The scholarship rooms were everything we had feared and more: a small double, no bathroom, public squat toilets (without doors on stalls, mind you, so anyone walking down the hall could watch you), and locker room showers of similar “privacy”. To what should be absolutely no one’s surprise, I said no to this* and upgraded to a single room with a tiny en-suite toilet and shower**. No internet though, and I have to pay for electricity. It’s not exactly a bargain, so I’m still in the market for a cheap alternative, although there is something to be said about not lugging my stuff around again.

*Actually, what I said is completely unfit for print.

**Yes, I realize I’m an absolute prima donna about this as compared to what the Chinese students on campus deal with, but frankly, unless I’m camping in the woods or backpacking, I expect a certain minimum standard of living. I’m a middle-class American girl and I have my limits, okay?


6 Jan

I’m working on a translation today. Why I volunteered to do this, I can’t even… the hells was I thinking? I’m about two-thirds of a way through “Sexual Harassment is a Gender Equity Issue”. I should probably be done by tomorrow

My last translation job was for my senior thesis, wherein I translated a 20,000 character science fiction story. It was about genetically engineered rats. And the gender imbalance between men and women in modern China due to the one-child policy, but mostly about rats. It took me about three months of concerted effort, with fevered eleventh-hour revisions and review with help from friends and family. So when the guy from China Development Brief (CDB) gave me this article I was kind of like, 2000 words? No biggie. And it really isn’t terrible, to be honest. I know most of the words, thanks to third-year Chinese. (Somewhere, Dr. Wang feels incredibly vindicated for making us learn things like “gender equality” and “sexual harassment”.) It’s just the fact that I’ve been mostly lazing about and putting the nose back to the grindstone is a little shocking. Boo frickety hoo, right?

It’s almost enjoyable, getting back into the hang of translating. Clearly, I’m a crazy person. I’ve got some new tea and a few scones – let’s do this thing.


(I’ll link to the article when it’s finished. After I’m through with it, the article has to go through another two rounds of editing before it gets published. Yay for redundancy and editors!)

Food Friday: Misfires

23 Sep

Eating in China is a daily adventure into the unknown. Very few restaurants have any English on their menus, most of which are printed once in large characters on the wall. Some places have individual menus pasted to the wall next to the tables, which is quite nice for the times when my Chinese is just not getting across and I can resort to the time honored “point and smile”. More often than not I rely on the Fates to decide what I’m having for dinner, especially on the rare occasions when I am tired of my standard fare. (Beef noodle soup, I’m sorry baby, I never meant to hurt you…) It’s a good way to change things up and sometimes I add a new favorite to my regular dinner rotation.

Unfortunately, not every dish is a winner. Oh god, no. Sometimes, when doing the spinny hand thing, I end up ordering something truly vile.

This is a bowl of beef flavored tofu nao. Translation: tofu brain. Ugh. I’m a fan of tofu in moderate quantities, but I had been under the impression that I had ordered beef noodles. This is not beef noodles. And to make matters worse, the wait-staff is staring at me in this tiny little shop, because I am apparently a fascinating thing.

Despite the name, there is no brains in this dish, which makes me rather pleased because I am not a zombie, my penchant for post-apocalyptic books aside. Instead, it’s a goddamn delicacy. To quote someone else who knows what the hells she’s talking about, “Dofu Nao, for example, is a dish of fermented bean curd in a rich brown sauce cooked with fine chopped meat, green cucumber and cloud- (or ear-) shaped wild fungus.” Delicious my ass. More like vomit-inducing. I barely made my way through a quarter of it, mushed it up some more to make it look like I had eaten more, and exited with undue haste.

The next dish is a traitor to the curry family. I’m a big fan of curry, especially Japanese-style curry. You know, the Golden whatever brand that comes in a big old brick of spices and turns into a thick, stew-like concoction that goes well with stir-fried meat and potatoes over rice? (Damn, I’m making myself hungry…) This is nothing like that.

Yes, there is chicken and potatoes over rice in a thick, uninspired gravy. But oh man, did they fuck up the execution of the dish. There’s no spice, no kick, nothing. The meat is reprocessed slurry (something I was shocked to find in China) and there are these weird pink squares. I have no idea what they are, but they had the consistency of bad spam. The rice is clearly low-grade. Basically, the whole meal was one big disappointment, as I paid 18 kuai, the purchasing power equivalent of going to a Panera/Chipolte or something. (Uh, I normally pay about 6 – 10 kuai for most of my meals. Those noodle dishes from last week? The most expensive was the Xinjiang noodle dish at 12 kuai and that was because of the grilled meat.) It ranks pretty low mostly because I was looking forward to good curry. I got something that makes school food curry look delicious, and I would know about Chinese cafeteria school food. Actually, Beida’s cafeteria food wasn’t half bad.

The last dish is, well, I have no words.

Seriously, I got nothing. I asked for red fried beef and rice. I got this. I think there was tomato? Yeah. The eagle-eyed amongst you might notice the two eggs on top. The whites were cooked, the yolks not so much. It was kind of put on my table and I stared at it for a while. When I asked the waitress “wtf?”, she nodded and said a bunch of things in very fast sichuanhua. So I ate it.

I was hungry. I was paying money for it. The rice was edible-ish. (Stop judging me.)

The sauce, not so much. It was like someone gelatinized a bunch of tomatoes, added egg whites, made sure it was cooked just enough to make sure no one would get salmonella, and threw over a bunch of rice. Then someone else in the kitchen said, “hang on, I have these eggs already cooked, what the hell, why not”. And then they served it to me. Yeah, I’m not going back there again.

Miscellanea: most things in Chengdu are already spiced. When they go to the trouble of actually labelling something as “peppered”, back away slowly. Seriously. You will thank me for this. I learnt this the hard way with a plate of “Mountain Peppered Fried Rice”. It was okay, but I was not expecting what appeared to be an entire garden’s worth of shredded green peppers invading my tastebuds and conquering all they encountered. It was not pleasant. You’ve been warned.